Excerpted from Legacy: Letters from Eminent Parents to their Daughters by Sudha Menon:
Pradeep Bhargava, Director at Cummins India and Chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) Western Region, is a man who believes in doing things differently. In a corporate set-up where top honchos have an abundance of perks and privileges, this was the man who set up a precedent to do as much of his work as possible, by himself. Much to the astonishment and consternation of his staff at Cummins Generator Technologies where he was the Managing Director, he decided to eat in the staff canteen where he served himself and washed his own plates, after keeping the leftover food aside. After each meal, the leftovers in the canteen got weighed and a chart was put up with the total leftover food weighed so that the staff would know the quantity of food wasted every day. The leftover food was then used for vermiculture within the factory. In effect, it was a symbolic message for conservation and also a strong message to his staff about the importance of not wasting food when thousands of children in the world die of starvation. In a career that has seen him work in the public as well as private sector, with stints also at UNDP and the World Bank, Bhargava has always been steered by an inner calling that saw him rise above the profile of his job to do something for the community around him. The inspiration for this came from his father, a Public Health Engineer with the Rajasthan Government. Pradeep remembers that spark of joy in his father’s eyes every time he was able to do something for the people, such as providing safe drinking water supply to the community. The young boy grew up idolizing his father and his thoughts and in the years since then, he has done his own bit for the community such as helping Pune city, his adopted home, free of the scourge of debilitating load shedding and power outages through a unique private and public sector partnership.
Bhargava is also the brain behind CII’s Finishing School project, a unique venture that he started off in collaboration with Pune’s Symbiosis College wherein scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students in the third year of engineering colleges got trained in a variety of soft skills and business etiquette in order to develop their personality and make them more employable. ‘They already had the required vocational skills; what we did was to make them more confident individuals who could compete with their more urbane, sophisticated city counterparts. These kids had been denied opportunities and put on the back foot for so long that we needed to help them believe that they could do it.’ The Finishing College experiment is now being replicated by CII’s branches in other parts of the country. Pradeep is also closely involved in the academic world where he has helped educational institutions in their development and curriculum, besides being engaged with Institutes such as TMTC, YASHDA, IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Bangalore, and Symbiosis Institutes, as a visiting faculty.
Now in his retirement phase but with a plateful of assignments to keep him busy, Bhargava’s biggest lesson was learnt nearly two decades ago, when he lay in a pool of blood in his house, after being assaulted by robbers who had broken in. In the days that he spent in the intensive care unit of a hospital, lonely and scared, Bhargava realized the ultimate truth that seems to escape most of us: That we are completely replaceable at our workplaces but there is never a back-up for us at home.
‘I did make it to the hospital and pulled through the crisis but in those days of uncertainty and loneliness in the ICU, I realized that the most important thing in my life was my family. I realized that it was not the next promotion or designation that mattered in life. In some ways, perhaps, all these years since then have been a ‘bonus’ for me, but that episode helped shape what is truly important in life and how we should not get consumed by so many trivialities and pettiness in everyday life,’ Bhargava writes to his daughter Pooja, a young professional in an IT firm and mother to a young son.
It’s been a long time since you and I had one of our famous ‘man to man’ talks, the kind you would nudge me into having during your teenage years when there was something that you needed to share with me. A lot has happened in our lives since then. You found your life partner and are now a young mother. I too got busy in my career and have spent these years fully immersed in my Corporate ‘Grahastha’ mode and I sometimes wonder if I could have spent more time with my family.
After 40 plus years of an exciting professional career, I’m now moving to my ‘Vanaprastha’ phase and I think the time is perfect for us to have one of our ‘man to mans’. It has been a memorable journey for me, one that started with a career in the public sector, took me to UNDP and World Bank, and finally put me through the hierarchies of the private sector and corporate world in India. But while I continue to carry a corporate visiting card, I have chosen to spend my time and energy on engagements I truly enjoy and am getting used to a retired life where compulsions are few and freedom is high. It is clearly a good time to capture the learning through a bit of ‘rewind and replay’ and even attempt to ‘fast forward’ to what could be a fulfilling direction for the remaining days of my life. And who can be a better person than you to share my journey and learning with!
Dear bitiya, to begin with, I would like to tell you something that is on top of my mind, always. I know you have heard this before but I still would love to tell you this: You and your brother Amit have been the best things that have happened to us—your mother and I. All the designations and achievements in my career pale into insignificance when compared to the joy I experience when I see you both now, grown up into splendid people with courage and conviction of your own.
As I rewind, I would like to first capture the learning on the professional front. And possibly try and answer the question all of us ask ourselves in our introspective moments: ‘If I were to start my life once again, would I steer it differently?’
Pooja, all of us base our lives on that one person who inspires you so much that you want to follow in his or her footsteps. My idol was my father. Such was his impact on my mind that even after passing out of the prestigious IIM, Ahmedabad with a gold medal, when I could have had a picking of the best jobs around, I chose to work with Bharat Sarkar and continued doing that for eleven long years. My father spent his entire working life with the Government of Rajasthan where, as Chief Engineer of the Public Health Engineering Department, he made a huge difference in the lives of people. I grew up seeing the twinkle in his eyes when he steered schemes to provide drinking water to people in the parched desert state. What joy and fulfilment! I had the same zeal and dream. And honestly, if I were to graduate from IIM, Ahmedabad today and if there was an iconic and charming leader like Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who recruited many of us in 1971 from IIM, Ahmedabad, into Atomic Energy and Space Research Organizations, I would still opt to work for him and the cause. It was all about doing something on a larger societal canvas, and I then felt that it would be easier if I were to work for State enterprise. It was only after life started unfolding, that I realized that you don’t necessarily have to be a ‘public-servant’ for serving a public cause. But the experience and exposure of the public sector was valuable and extremely useful when I entered the public space later in life while working for private enterprises. How can it not have? I have had the privilege and opportunity of working with some of the country’s tallest visionaries such as Dr Vikram Sarabhai and Prof MGK Menon who made a big difference in my professional upbringing and values.
A decade later, I entered the private sector and have spent the last 27 years as Managing Director in some of the country’s well-known corporate houses ( Kalyani-Sharp, General Electric, and now Cummins India), gaining a span of expertize in setting up and running companies, mergers, acquisitions…in a variety of markets and sectors ranging from industrial to consumer goods, both for domestic and international business. But you know that your father was no ‘race horse’ and has had his share of discomfort being on the race track. But in some ways, I have to acknowledge that my designations and empowering superiors gave me the opportunity of serving common cause by pulling ‘tongas’ in public life. These regular detours onto the side roads were my greatest joys while I was driving on the corporate expressway.
The urge of going beyond corporate expectations and roles was always there in some corner of my heart and it drove me to take up activities that brought me closer to civic society. It came not from any disenchantment with corporate life but from a positive desire to go beyond. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my corporate role—its passion and pressures, highs and lows, adrenalin of growth and pains of decline, creating jobs and wealth, and engaging in its own contribution to society and environment. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was an excellent platform which gave me an opportunity to deliver and seek fulfilment from a space which individual corporates normally don’t focus on. CII has been the best enabler for me, and I learnt so much through my association with some outstanding and caring corporate leaders in this country.
Gudiya, let me start by sharing a journey which has made a deep impact on my persona and in the lives of lakhs of fellow beings around us. Almost a decade ago, Pune city, which had been our home for many years, started experiencing crippling power shortage (affecting the entire State of Maharashtra) resulting in extended load shedding every day. I remember the public outrage when the state government threw up its hands and said the power shortages would continue for the next few years. It struck me then that instead of whining or blaming the government, all of us had the choice of taking control of the situation and resolving the problem. I took upon myself what everyone considered the unrealistic responsibility of making the city of Pune free of load shedding. It was a formidable task considering that I had no framework to work upon and the government had nothing to offer. On the CII platform, we worked on a unique and innovative solution by which industrial units in the city cooperated and used their captive gensets for their needs during peak hours, thereby releasing grid capacity for the citizens who then did not have load shedding. A new framework involving Regulator, State Utility Company, Government, Industry, NGOs and consumers was evolved. Details are not important here, but after three years of stubborn struggle, the city of Pune became load shedding free on 6 June, 2006 and has stayed so since then. It was almost a miracle and it was done not by dependence on the State but by a citizen-industry movement. We have to go beyond analysing problems and offering advice…we need to be a part of the solution. The e-mails and calls I still get from unknown faces and names, thanking me for resolving a daily pain in their lives, are the best reward I can ever aspire for. For me, it was also reiteration of the belief that it is possible for each one of us to bring positive change with commitment and persistence.
In our family, all of us know the value of the words commitment and persistence, don’t we? How can we not? It is these two qualities alone that brought back your brother Amit from the months that he was bedridden after the medical set back eleven years ago. Amit was so young and full of life and so much involved in his passion for tennis and a variety of other sports. I’ve never been able to forget the shock and the searing pain that went through me when I saw my young son on that hospital bed and the doctor’s words that it would be a long haul to recovery. We were all devastated, and for you it was even worse because he was your confidant and soul mate. All of us marvel at Amit’s tremendous will power, his insistence on appearing for his engineering finals with a writer to help him, his moment of triumph when he cleared it with a distinction, and his every triumph since then. After that episode, the ‘fittest boy in town became the strongest boy in town.’ In all the years since, Amit leads a full life and has a great career. One can only salute the human spirit when we see Amit with his loving wife Minu and their angel of a daughter, Suhani.
Pooja, through it all, your mother and I remember how generously you gave of yourself to your brother. At 24, you had a promising career and life but you put your every pre-occupation aside to immerse yourself in getting your brother back on his feet, completely recovered. The love, care, dedication that you gave was not only heart-warming, but one of the key factors that contributed to his recovery. For us as a family, it was a period of bonding, committing ourselves to each other and learning about the power of a positive attitude and persistence.
Like in my personal life, I have always encouraged the corporate sector to commit themselves to the welfare of the community around them. The success of my Pune Power Model and its replication in other cities is validation of my faith that clarity of goals, honesty of purpose, and perseverance will always pay off.
Dear Pooja, other things in my life have also shaped the person I am today, a silent activist. As a child and later, when I was in school, I would be mystified by my grandparents and their queries about the surnames of my friends who came visiting at our home in Rajasthan. I would sometimes dismiss it as harmless curiosity and at other times as an annoying habit. It was only years later that I realized the shameful secret behind their questions: it was the hideous classification of people based on their castes!
Over my years in corporate life, I have seen how young men and women from certain sections of society, castes and tribes struggle to find their own place in the larger society around them. They come from disadvantaged economic and social backgrounds but strive hard to improve their lives. But years, indeed, generations of discrimination have rendered them at a disadvantage when competing with the world around them. Often, they have to do jobs much below their actual qualifications and abilities and somewhere the realization came to me that we need to do prayashchit (penance) for the paap (sins)of our forefathers. I am neither a social reformer, nor a politician but I was convinced that I could play a role in giving those children from socially challenged sections an opportunity to unleash their full potential and lead a life of self-respect. I knew what these young people lack is a huge boost in self-confidence and self-belief. The inability to communicate or articulate their point with the suaveness of us city-bred people and a lack of grooming have also combined to keep them away from the plum positions that could be theirs, given their skill sets. I had a vision in my mind, of giving them a fair chance in life and it got translated into the now famous ‘Finishing School’ for students from the scheduled castes and tribes, a concept wherein we impart a clutch of soft skills so that these young people emerge as strong candidates for employment, employability, and entrepreneurship. This powerful affirmative action, made possible by the collaboration between CII and the Symbiosis educational institutes, has changed the lives of hundreds of students over the years and has since then been replicated at many locations and covers a wide variety of vocations ranging from ITI’s, Polytechnics, Engineering, and even MBA students.
A few months ago, I was rushing to check into my hotel room before heading out to a conference when the young woman at the reception surprised me by thanking for transforming her life. Taken aback, I excused myself saying I could not recall if we had met before. She smiled brightly, telling me that she had passed out of one of our Finishing School batches and had been selected for a job on the basis of merit, almost immediately after that. She had always aspired to work at a five-star hotel and the soft skills she had learnt gave her the confidence to show her talent. Pooja, I cannot express the satisfaction and joy that I derived from that young woman’s story. I had managed to use my position as a corporate leader and CII office bearer to create a platform, influence a cross section of industry leaders and education institutions, to benefit the section of society which has been traditionally neglected. Without politicizing anything or discussing quotas and abilities, I had managed to alleviate a long-standing scourge of society. God creates everybody equal and does not give IQs to children on the basis of their surname. We give surnames later and create stigmas. Every child is entitled to fair opportunity and I know this movement that I initiated will make a difference in many lives.
I am asked by my many friends why I have not opted to be a full time activist—a social crusader or even get into active politics. My answer is a question—‘For Bhakti (devotion to God), does one have to be a priest or go to a temple?’ Each one of us can do it from where we are; if we really care. May be I did not have the courage to fully give up my comfort zone but the important thing was to listen to my heart and doing what gives me joy.
Some of my friends in the corporate world often tell me about their plans to devote a lot of their time and resources to social agenda later in life, after they have achieved their professional goals, settled their children etc. etc… My advice to them, always, is that the process of ‘settling’ never happens in life and our social commitments have to be honoured in everyday life. Unfortunately, many of us consider the obligations to society as an option to be exercised if and when it suits us. Very often we get so engrossed in our personal lives that we forget that there is a larger world outside of our small families and that each one of us owes something to this other world. Much as I was engaged in undoing (in a limited manner) the wrongs of our caste system, I got drawn into yet another engagement, this time, with the environment.
Over the last few years, I have been preoccupied with the thought that just as our purvajs (forefathers) left the wrong legacy of the caste system in our society, the present generation will, if its reckless behaviour is not checked, leave a depleted and dangerous planet for the next generation. And we have no right to do this under the garb of development. Like many others, I am convinced that Vikas does not have to lead to Vinash (Development can coexist with Environment Sanity). That is how I started my Green journey and set up the country’s first Green Factory, near Pune. It was a fascinating search for harmony which not only transformed the approach to development but has become the guiding light for many organizations in the country. My employer Cummins, which strongly supported my initiative, has made this project part of its best practice, worldwide. What has emerged is the amazing business case for Green. I keep reminding everyone that it is no longer nice to be Green but you are dumb if you are not Green. From the success of this green factory building, I am now driving through CII, a national movement towards ‘Green Companies’, wherein organizations move towards a wholesome, environmentally sensitive conduct in all its functioning. This includes factories or industrial automation environments using variable frequency drives (VFDs), as variable frequency drives improve factory production and also reduce overall energy use and energy waste, which makes them good for the environment. Once again, a detour Pooja, for an agenda that affected society; but done within the contours and context of the corporate world. It further reinforced my conviction that social agenda can be addressed from different platforms and is certainly not the exclusive domain of either the State or social and political organizations. You can be an activist in the Boardroom and nobody needs to take a sabbatical to address issues of People and Planet.
Often our personal values also become the values that we mimic at our workplaces. Throughout my growing up years, I saw the love and admiration that my father got from the organization that he worked for. Government jobs are often thankless and offer limited rewards to individuals. And yet, my father was a much-loved, respected, and admired man. Looking back, I know that it was from the way he brought grace, dignity, and the quality of caring in his job. It is from him that I adopted my own equation with the people around me, at work, in the community and in the family. When times are bad, corporates often have a propensity to try and rectify the situation by getting rid of the people. Many years ago, in the midst of a crucial acquisition and merger, I remember my boss gave me a clear brief to ‘change’ people, especially at the leadership level, so that the integration of the companies could happen quickly and seamlessly. A year later, I had delivered the desired result of integration with outstanding success. But my boss realized that I had not got rid of the people at the leadership level as he had expected and directed. He questioned me and I responded by pointing out that I had, in fact, ‘changed’ people—but by bringing changes in them with respect to organization culture / processes etc. It goes back to care and grace.
Pooja, these attributes are like our health—you realize its importance when it fails you. Each one of us experiences joys and pangs, excitement and breakdowns, preferences and prejudices and above all surprises when we are least prepared for it. But what we recall the most with extreme emotions are instances when we were treated with care or when grace and dignity was dispensed with. Increments and promotion as occasions are important but they fade with time. The enduring images in our hearts are that of kindness and grace and friendship from unexpected quarters.
It is said our various life experiences shape us and make us the people we are. Certainly, these societal detours made me a more sensitive, caring, and knowledgeable leader at work. Equally important, it made me emotionally and mentally less vulnerable to ups and downs of corporate life. There was always something exciting happening in my life which prepared me to handle business cycles with lesser pressure. People often ask me how I get the energy to do all these things while still delivering full corporate responsibility. Frankly, these activities don’t consume my energy—they give me energy!
Gudiya, each one of us choose a path to follow in our lives. For some it is achieving greater heights of corporate ladder and fulfillment at work. Others take up academics and yet others, sports. I chose to take up detours into socially useful projects, while still at work. That was my attempt at actualization. There is never a correct mix applicable to all. Each one can and does choose a recipe for life. My own life recipe changed during the long, lonely days that I spent in the intensive care unit of Bombay Hospital, some twenty years ago, after being grievously injured in a tussle with robbers who had broken into our home in the dead of the night. Even today, I break out in sweat when I think of the concern and the anger that coursed through me when I realized that there were robbers in the house and that they might harm my little children sleeping in the next room. I rushed out and grappled with them, trying to keep them from getting anywhere near both of you but ended up getting brutally assaulted. Pooja, even in the midst of that danger, my only thought was my children’s safety, and I recall how you stood terror-stricken, at the sight of me lying in a pool of blood, on the floor. I did make it to the hospital and pulled through the crisis but in those days of uncertainty and loneliness in the ICU, I realized that the most important thing in my life was my family. I realised that it was not the next promotion or designation that mattered in life. In some ways, perhaps, all these years since then have been a bonus for me, but that episode helped me shape what is truly important in life and how we should not get consumed by so many trivialities and pettiness in everyday life .Faced with the uncertainty of life and certainty of death, I have shaped my life by scripting in my head the ‘obituary’ that I would like to have for myself. With that script it becomes so much easier to make choices in life.
Like every professional going through the ‘rough and fun’ journey, I had choices to make but in my head, since that harrowing time in our lives, there has never been any confusion on the priority between family and work. I have often shared this with my colleagues when they seek permission or time off for something important at home: In our work environment, we have succession planning and role sharing; at home there are no ‘backfills’. Work does go on in our absence (and sometimes that humbles us); but there is no substitute for us, at home. Important events and occasions in your personal life never come back but at work, you can make a difference in the next quarter or close the next deal. Which is why, I often made those really long detours for two-day visits to USA when your little Sahil was a tiny tot. My friends and yours too, commented on the strangeness of a detour to USA when I was actually meant to do London-Mumbai, but I would not have missed seeing him take his first steps or mouthing his first words, for anything in the world. For me, spending time with my children ,three wonderful grandchildren and their lovely spouses Minu and Aseem, is not about work-life balance…it is about LIFE itself; not to be confused with what we do for a ‘living!’ What matters in the end for all of us is the lasting impression that we leave behind. Was he a caring, nurturing, humble human being? Did he leave a legacy of honesty, sincerity and love behind him? That is what matters…
For me retirement has not brought the slowing down that it brings along for most people. I continue to work as hard, only this time it is with projects that I enjoy taking up, the ones that make a difference to the people around me. I am engaging myself with many educational institutions like IIMs, Symbiosis, not only for teaching but in the journey of institution-building. I have intimate relationship with NGOs and of course steer so many CII initiatives. It means the world to me that my Pune Power Model and Green Factory experiment are case studies used at IIM Bangalore and Ahmedabad respectively. And even though I still have long hours and endless things to do, I know that at the end of the day, I get to unwind in the company of my grandchildren and that is enough to take away the fatigue.
Pooja, when I see you head to the school bus stop every morning, holding Diya’s little hand, I remember taking you to the school bus stop in Delhi thirty years ago. When I see Sahil on the tennis court for coaching, I can almost see Amit in him so many years ago. If growing old gives you an opportunity to see your children in your grandchildren, I would have welcomed it much earlier. One of the biggest joys of our life has been seeing both of your grow up with good, home grown sanskars. The credit for the wholesome upbringing goes to your mother, who, without any hesitation, gave up her career as an architect, to focus on you both. Her efforts have more than paid off—and we can see her magic work with her grandchildren.
I want to close this letter with the fun question we all used to chuckle about as you kids were growing up—how did God choose to send the best son and best daughter in the world to the same parents. Gudiya, I am still posing the same question to God and am grateful to him for his kindness.
Lots of love and blessings,
Excerpted with permission from the author from Legacy: Letters from Eminent Parents to their Daughters by Sudha Menon
Published by Random House India
Price: Rs 399, Paperback (Buy the book)